Daniel P. Strandlund
St. John’s Episcopal Church
January 10th, 2016
First Sunday after Epiphany
An Affectionate History
Then Peter and John laid their hands on [the Samaritans], and they received the Holy Spirit (8:17).
I want to do two things today. A lot of us here have some idea that Jews in Jesus’ day disliked Samaritans. The parable of the Good Samaritan sticks in our imaginations precisely because when Jesus’ audience hears him tell that story, they’re all expecting the Samaritan to be a bad guy. But we don’t hear much about why Jews in and around Jerusalem hated the Samaritans so much, or how long the conflict has been around. The first thing I want to do today is to give us an idea of how the conflict started and how long it’d been going on. The second thing I want to do is to offer some perspective on why Peter’s and John’s going to lay hands on the Samaritans in our passage from Acts today begins to heal that divide.
Jews living in and around Jerusalem have a long-standing beef with the Samaritans. It goes all the way back to the reign of King Solomon, in 1 Kings 11. King Solomon, like his father David, rules over a strong and united kingdom. But in his quest to expand the might of Israel, Solomon inflicts a heavy yoke on his people, forcing them into a kind of slavery (1 Kings 11). When Solomon’s son Rehoboam comes to the throne, the elder counselors of his kingdom advise him to put an end to Solomon’s slave-driving and to become a servant to his people and to speak good words to them (1 Kings 12:6-8). But Rehoboam is a young hot-head and wants the high life, so he ignores their counsel and turns instead to his younger friends. They advise him only to up the ante, advising Rehoboam to say to his burdened people, My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions (1 Kings 12:9-12).
The young King Rehoboam is foolish and heeds the advice of his fraternity brothers. Thus, a man from the northern reaches of the kingdom, where the brunt of this slavery is felt, appears on the scene. His name is Jeroboam, and Jeroboam leads a rebellion against his tyrannical king. Thus, the kingdom is divided: King Rehoboam reigns over Judah and Jerusalem in the south, and Jeroboam is crowned as the first king of Israel in the north (1 Kings 12:16-20).
King Jeroboam sets up two shrines to God in northern cities. In each of these shrines is a calf made of gold (1Kings 12:28-30). That should be a red flag to anyone at all familiar with the Old Testament: calf of gold = idolatry. So, even though Jeroboam’s reasons for his rebellion were perfectly sound”he wanted to free his people from slavery”no sooner is he crowned king than his reign goes awry. Jews in the southern kingdom of Judah see these new shrines with their golden calves as heretical competitors with the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Not long after Jeroboam’s reign is at an end, his northern kingdom of Israel has a civil war of its own. Jerusalem watches events unfold with not a little bit of schadenfreude. This northern civil war ends when a man named Omri emerges as king, and he takes as his capital a little hilltop called Samaria (1 Kings 17:21-24). Thus, for Jews living in Jerusalem, Samaria becomes a byword for the apostasy of Jeroboam, for betrayal of king and country, and for a land particularly subject to God’s wrath and indignation. Thus begins the long enmity between Samaritans and Jews, an enmity which will only be compounded over the centuries leading up to the life of Jesus. (See, for example, 2 Kings 17:29-41)
That was a lot of background. Let’s recap that. Jews in the south in and around Jerusalem are culturally and ethnically related to the Samaritans in the north, but the southerners hate the northerners (and probably vise versa). This started when the north rebelled”for good reasons”and then set up shrines with idols in them. The capital of this northern area is Samaria. There’s more to the story, but on the whole, to Jews living in the south near the area of Jerusalem, where our story from Acts takes place, if you’re a Samaritan then you’re descended from idolaters and traitors and all the evil that’s befallen you through history is the result of God’s wrath. All that’s a bit simplistic, and there’s more to the story later on, but that’s the gist of how the enmity started.
One of the stories southern Jews in and around Jerusalem tell about God’s wrath towards the Samaritans comes in the second book of kings. The prophet Elijah has been prophesying against the northern King Ahab and his wife Jezebel (1 Kings 21:17-29, et al). After Ahab’s death, the next king of Samaria is afraid of Elijah and sends several troops of soldiers to arrest him. What does Elijah do? He calls fire down from heaven to consume the apostate Samaritans, sparing only the ones who recognize the power of the Lord at work in the fearsome prophet (1 Kings 1:1-17).
To southerners in and around Jerusalem, Elijah, with all his divine fire from heaven, is a hero. So: fast forward to Luke’s Gospel. Keep in mind that Luke and Acts are two parts of the same story. They share an author; they share theological perspectives; they share cultural concerns. In chapter 9 of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem. The Samaritans naturally don’t want anything to do with this prophet and his followers who are clearly bound for the southern capital of Jerusalem. John takes offense at the Samaritans lack of hospitality towards Jesus, and John says, John says to Jesus, Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? (9:54).
Think about how absurd that is. Imagine that you’re walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood, and all the people who live there are just sort of staring at you from their porches. Maybe one of them says to you, You’d better just keep on walking. That would be uncomfortable, for sure, but would your first thought be, Man, I should ask God to set these people on fire. That’s ridiculous.
But that’s exactly what John does, and moreover, he doesn’t see anything at all wrong with it. He thinks he’s just continuing the work of the prophets who are the microphones of God’s voice and the instruments of God’s justice. He thinks he’s pulling an Elijah. But Jesus rebukes him (9:55). No, John, I’d prefer it if you didn’t set our neighbors on fire. Why don’t you walk at the back of the line for a while.
In this passage from Acts, Peter and John are eating their words. They’re swallowing their pride, and they’re getting the first taste of the freedom of admitting wrongdoing, asking forgiveness, and making amends. When Peter and John go to lay hands on a group of Samaritans who have accepted the word of God, we witness the first steps of reconciliation, the first touch of communion after centuries of conflict and condescension. This is not a consuming fire of wrath, but the laying on of hands and the bestowing of the Holy Spirit, the fire that consumes our old lives and begins in us something new.
Peter and John lay hands on the Samaritans because the Holy Spirit proceeds by way of affection. Believers everywhere are connected physically to the gathered body of apostles who received the tongues of Spiritual fire at Pentecost in Jerusalem where everything began. The story of Acts is the story of the Gospel spreading to the ends of the earth. Early Christians like Peter and John, like Paul, like that group of Samaritans, lay hands on each other, they offer each other sacramental affection, as a sign for the commissioning for work (6:6, 13:3), for the ministry of healing (9:12, 9:17, 28:8), and, as we see in Acts today, for the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (8:17, 8:19, 9:17, and 19:6).
In the Episcopal Church, one way we keep this affectionate history alive is in the sacrament of confirmation. This May the bishop will come, and all those who are being confirmed will kneel or stand before him, and the bishop will lay his hands on them. Big deal, right? But think about it: our bishop became a bishop when other bishops laid their hands on him. And in turn, those bishops received the laying on of hands of other bishops”all the way back to that original group of apostles, gathered together in Jerusalem, who received the Holy Spirit of fire directly from heaven on Pentecost, and then in little groups went around the countryside to places like Samaria, laying their hands on all who had received the word of God.
The Holy Spirit travels to us through two thousand years of affection. The hands of Jesus giving bread and wine to his friends, Peter and John. Peter and John walking the long road north from Jerusalem to Samaria, that strange and hateful place, to stay there for a while. To make friends, to hug the people there, to apologize for centuries of hatred, and to lay hands on them.
Afterwards, maybe the group of believers in Samaria sent their own pair of apostles out into the world, to listen to the stories of believers in another part of the country, and to lay hands on them, offering that sacramental affection which is the seal of the Holy Spirit knowingly and maturely at work in us. And maybe that town who received apostles from Samaria, wherever it was, maybe they raised up apostles from amongst themselves and sent them out to Ephesus or Constantinople or Atlanta”on and on through the violence and vicissitudes of history, until somewhere, a couple hundred years ago, apostles from who knows where wandered into the our neck of the woods and started the Diocese of Alabama, and St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Ours is an affectionate history. Confirmation is one way we keep that history alive. But there are other ways. In a few moment we’re going to pass the peace. We’ll shake hands with each other, or hug, as we try to perform the truth that we as the Body of Christ are always being knit back together. We are not Jews and Samaritans overcoming centuries of canonical mistrust. No, we’re Samaritans of a different kind: our grievances are more immediate. A bit of gossip, a thank you note noticeably unwritten, or maybe our grandparents had a row in public once and since then things have never been the same.
Or maybe right now your life is largely free of all that. If that’s true, that’s good news! Then passing the peace is just fun, even if occasionally a little awkward, and Samaritan is just a word for somebody whom you haven’t gotten to be friends with yet.
Wherever you are with all of that, when we pass the peace we’re rehearsing reconciliation and the brotherhood of man. What does it mean to extend your hand to someone, to have them receive it, to grasp each other for even the briefest of moments? What does it mean to put an arm around your neighbors’ shoulders and squeeze? What does it mean for a wife to lean over and kiss her husband, or for a boy to hug his mother’s legs? What does it mean for an elderly woman to smile at the young family near her, the ones she doesn’t know but who are clearly growing to love this place as much as she has for these many years? What does it mean when two strangers make eye contact for a moment, even if it’s a little awkward?
It just means that we are continuing the affectionate history of Christians trying to love each other, of Peter and John eating their words and laying hands on the Samaritans, of the Samaritans welcoming into their midst two people who used to despise them. To offer a handshake or a hug, to nod from several pews away, these are our small, imperfect ways of saying to each other, I see you there, you Sacred Mystery, standing shyly in this crowd. I see you, beautiful beyond imagining, beautiful beyond my opinion and control. Here, take my hand for a moment”peace be with you. Anything else I could say would fall too short of the glory standing before me.
Peace be with you, friends.